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RIFIFI (ri-f’-fi) n. French argot.
1.  Quarrel, rumble, free-for-all, open hostilities between individuals or gangs, rough-and-tumble confrontation between two or more individuals.
2.  A tense and chaotic situation involving violent confrontations between parties.

Also known asDu Rififi Chez Les Hommes due to the infamous Auguste Le Breton book on which it is based, Jules Dassin’s 1955 film noir adaptation immediately went down a storm in France and its title continues to be used as a European shorthand for pulp heist movies and hard-boiled thrillers.

Just out on the street after a 5 year spell in France’s toughest joint, spent burglar Tony le Stephanois (Jean Servais) wants to settle a few scores before leaving the mean streets of Paris behind him. Top of Tony’s agenda is to hook up with his former squeeze, the duplicitous Mado (Marie Sabouret), and mete out some payback for his enforced incarceration.

Unfortunately Mado is now the moll for newly installed gang boss Pierre Grutter (Marcel Lupovici) who doesn’t take too kindly to Tony taking a belt to make his mark on Mado’s back. Of course, Tony is planning to take the few Francs he has left and gamble them away elsewhere in the drinking dens of France. That is until his man mountain of a protégé Jo le Suedois (Carl Moehner) and long time associate Mario Farati (Robert Manuel) try to rope him in to a seemly send-off involving the simple swiping of diamonds from a jewellery store window.

Tony, sniffing out the opportunity for that ‘last big job’ that will set them all up for life, suggests a daring overnight heist that will clear out the contents of the main safe. Thus, the original trio soon spirals to a quintet with a fence in England to move the merchandise and ingenuous Italian safecracker Cesar le Milanese (Jules Dassin) arriving in Paris.

However, with more links in the chain comes a greater chance of getting caught yet the police are the least of the group’s problems. Cesar’s roving eye for the ladies at Grutter’s club L’Age D’Or, Jo’s distractions of his wife and young son, Tony’s inability to put paid to Mado’s insidious influence and Grutter’s increasing interest in Tony’s activities all threaten to upset the apple-cart. With gems worth 240 million Francs up for grabs honour among thieves may just end up as a frantic free-for-all...

Dassin’s masterful little pot-boiler, shot on location in France on almost no budget with a no-name cast, is almost always remembered for that sequence, the 28 minute heist in which not a word is spoken. Indeed The Score, Heist and Mission Impossible are overly indebted to this inspired chain of events and even elements of the Pierce Brosnan Thomas Crown Affair remake are stolen from Dassin’s deft little movie. What sets these later entries to the genre apart from their progenitor is that Rififi doesn’t use the heist as a gimmick; all the way through the action facets of character are revealed or developed in constantly surprising and sometimes amusing ways.

Dassin doesn’t break the icy tension for the whole 28 minutes, the dialogue bereft nature accentuates the anxiety of the audience as elements of the original plan go increasingly awry and, due to the nature of the vibration and sound sensitive alarm system, the characters are not permitted to use words to warn each other.

Such reliance on the heist shapes the narrative into a very standard three act structure. All the exposition occurs in the first third, the second sets its sights entirely on the robbery and the third focuses on the frenetic fallout yet Dassin manages to shy away from making the movie too mechanical, often inserting delightful little touches to a simple story taken from just 10 pages of the novel. The script itself is a real zinger, sparse but tough dialogue peppering the lean and finely tuned plot.

Celebrated cinematographer Philipe Agostini (whose fee swallowed most of the money, you can see why!) shoots the streets of Paris with a fabulously grimy earthiness, so expertly parodied in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville. Production designer Alexandre Trauner, who previously worked on Les Enfants du Paradis, sets the scenes and interiors wonderfully well for the second rate lifestyles of the characters.

While not household names, even in the Cahiers du Cinema subscribing maisons of France, the cast do very well. Jean Servais makes an appealing alternative to Eddie Constantine (whom Dassin had wanted but couldn’t afford, again a situation Godard mimics in Alphaville), Marie Sabouret smoulders away as the fiery but fatal Mado and Marcel Lupovici makes for a marvellously callous bad guy. Dassin, in an enforced appearance as ‘Perlo Vita’ having been unable to afford anyone else after the original actor chose not to turn up, does rather well as Cesar in what became the plot’s pivotal role.

In the original Academy aspect ratio the black and white cinematography is crisp and sharp. Shadow detail and contrast levels are exemplary, particularly important in this transfer above others as so much of the action, not least the heist itself, takes place at night. There is the odd scratch here and a few white specks there but for a film 50 years young it would be unfair to quibble.

Benefitting from a digital transfer struck from a newly restored print, Rififi is a prime example of how good old movies can look on DVD, provided they’ve been well maintained and Fremantle should be applauded for the trouble taken to present this with as much effort as it has been.

Subtitles in English are provided and while they’re always clear to read it’s a bit of a shame that they are of the ‘burnt in’ variety. This may be due to the fact that they were present on the print available for restoration but with such little French dialogue to translate, and for French speakers in particular; it’s annoying that they are unable to be turned off.

That said, while the hard-boiled dialogue is unlikely to present a problem to most students of GCSE French, it is translated succinctly with a few of the obvious affirmations left to pass by. The lyrics of the musical number which contains some irrefutably French colloquialisms that are not quite handled word-for-word but the translation actually benefits from a rhyming treatment in English in the same ilk as the Depardieu version of Cyrano de Bergerac.

Again enhanced by full restoration, the audio in its original mono form is refreshingly clean and clear, free from the clicks and crackles that characterise films from the period. The claustrophobic and contained nature of the narrative, itself a motif for the inescapable destiny that binds the finality of the characters together in the denouement, actually lends itself to this kind of presentation.

Despite all the ambient audio also coming from the centre speaker, the dialogue, some of it quite awkwardly re-recorded in post-production, is always sharp, clear and high in the mix. Once again Fremantle should be commended for their commitment to making Rififi sound as good as it does.

In the absence of a commentary the special features slate kicks off with an Interview With Director Jules Dassin. Presented in 4:3 colour, conducted recently in what seems to be specifically for this release, the interview, with a total running time of 28 minutes, is split into 4 chapters. The first three elaborate on how Dassin came to be in France to make Rififi, covering how the Jewish Harlem resident became blacklisted in Hollywood by the U.S. Senate’s House Un-American Committee (HUAC) and was forced to bring his family to Europe in order to secure work.

The fourth and final chapter, by far the longest, chronologically dissects the Rififi experience, from battles with the author Breton to his producer Henri Berard and the difficulties of shooting the movie with no money.

It’s a touching and revealing interview with Dassin providing plenty of amusing little anecdotes, aside from expounding the problems that being labelled a Communist brought into his personal life.

Next up, lasting for 35 minutes, is a Q & A With Jules Dassin At The NFT. Filmed once again in 4:3 colour using what seems to be a cheap camcorder, members of the audience, who had just been treated to a viewing of the newly restored print, quiz Dassin on many aspects of his life. Although this feature is much broader in scope than the one that immediately precedes it, much of the same ground from the interview is covered.

Given that Dassin is quite a soft-spoken retiring chap and the equipment used doesn’t pick up his voice very well at all, it is difficult at times to make out what the venerable director is saying. Even so, there’s plenty here for those interested in this largely forgotten player of the ‘film noir’ movement who helmed both Naked City (1948) and the Richard Widmark classic Night And The City (1950) prior to lensing Rififi.

Following this is a scrolling slideshow of Production Stills with a duration of 3 minutes and 40 seconds. This collection of around 40 images is mainly constituted of screen captures of publicity shots but there are a precious few production design drawings that afford an insight into the works of Alexandre Trauner.

A 1955 Original Theatrical Trailer is also included. Following that time-honoured 1950’s style of splashing critics’ quotes across the screen via fades and wipes, it focuses on the more racy aspects of the film (Mario’s girlfriend gets as much screentime in the trailer as she does in the film) along with an awful dubbed English dialogue track.

It’s an intriguing curio, very much of its’ time, but invaluable for seeing the amelioration of visual and audio quality given to the film in this DVD release from its original state.

All the above features can be accessed by a well-designed menu system that carries a loop of Magali Noel warbling the jaunty Rififi theme tune.

An informative 8 Page Booklet is packaged with the DVD which contains an treatise on the film by critic Mark Deitch and plenty of insight in a reproduced contemporary article from Francois Truffaut.

While many of the themes in Rififi have been re-hashed countless times in the 50 years since its’ release, it remains a daring and bravura piece of movie making, a lesson for all who want to make a heist movie with heart.

It’s not immediately well-known and being released by a smaller DVD label might not increase the awareness of it by the disc buying public. For all that it’s great that this classic slice of film noir has been given such a loving release by Fremantle, eclipsing even their treatment of Straw Dogs, and deserves to find a good home on the shelf of any film enthusiast.